Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, top row, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, bottom row.

Mass shootings involving assault weapons have become increasingly commonplace in the United States, but only one member of Maine’s congressional delegation supports reviving a national ban on the guns.

And the other three – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Rep. Jared Golden – don’t even want to talk about it.

The Press Herald asked to speak with each of them – at their convenience, at any time, over the past two weeks – and none would do it. In prepared statements, they said a version of the same thing: that they are appalled, like most Americans, by the number of mass shootings and gun-related tragedies, but it is impractical to attempt to ban semiautomatic weapons again in 2023.

King has said bans focus too much on the style and appearance of guns, not their lethality. Collins, who once voted to extend the ban after it expired in 2004, has opposed more recent measures as too broad. Golden, a Marine veteran who has firsthand knowledge of such weapons, doesn’t believe in taking some types of firearms from all Americans. Rather, he would prefer keeping all firearms away from those who pose the greatest risk.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree is the exception. The 1st District congresswoman has been steadfast in her support for bringing back the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons that was in effect nationally from 1994 to 2004.

The reluctance of lawmakers from both parties to consider a ban, or even talk about it, underscores the intractable debate over guns in a country where shootings occur so frequently. This despite national polls showing a strong majority of Americans want military-style assault weapons – a term generally applied to semi-automatic firearms that have large-capacity magazines and other features that make them more deadly – out of the hands of civilians.


“I think it has become a third rail, especially in places like Maine that have a strong and vocal gun rights community,” said Robert Spitzer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary and the author of six books on gun policy in the U.S. “I’m not surprised members of Congress don’t want to stick their neck out.”

President Biden has renewed calls for a ban, but any debate is likely to follow a familiar pattern that has played out numerous times.

Republicans appear united in opposition, and they control the House of Representatives. Even if they didn’t, passing anything controversial through the closely divided Senate, where it takes 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, is nearly impossible.

“The gun lobby has been historically pretty successful at parlaying their vehemence to block majority will, and public support doesn’t dictate public policy,” Spitzer said.

Ten states have passed their own assault weapons bans, including Washington and Illinois most recently. A similar ban has never gotten traction in Maine, and the Illinois law appears headed to the Supreme Court, where justices could overturn it – and nullify others, too.

Maine’s Legislature has only considered a direct proposal to ban assault weapons once in the last 40 years. That 2005 bill was pulled by its sponsor when it became clear it would be rejected.


“People have speculated that there could be a groundswell of more support because of mass shootings, but we haven’t seen that in the past,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA and an expert on gun rights. “What’s likely to change now?”


The 1994 ban, which was part of larger crime bill, was plenty controversial, too.

To ensure enough votes, the assault weapons ban portion of the bill was written to expire after 10 years, and the language was narrowed so that only about 20 firearms fit the definition.

The final House vote was 235-195, and it passed in the Senate 61-38.

One Republican House member, Henry Hyde of Illinois, said at the time about such weapons: “Their only purpose is killing people, and I don’t see a justification for it.”


Still, Volokh said, there were plenty of people who believe that the 1994 midterm elections, when Democrats lost majorities in both the House and Senate, were “a referendum on the assault weapons ban.”

When a bill was introduced in 2004 to extend the ban, Republicans again controlled both chambers of Congress and the measure failed.

The vote in the Senate was 52-47 – below the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster. Interestingly, both of Maine’s Republican senators, Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted in favor of extending the ban while six Democratic senators voted against. The House never took it up.

In the two decades since, there have been additional attempts to revive a ban on assault weapons, but each has failed.

The most recent bill was last summer. The House, which was then in Democratic control, narrowly voted in favor of passage – 217-213. Pingree supported it, but Golden was one of five Democrats who did not.

It was never scheduled for a vote in the closely divided Senate.


Shortly after a gunman opened fire this month outside a mall in Allen, Texas, killing eight people, Biden renewed calls to ban military-style weapons. He also called for universal background checks, requiring safe storage of firearms and ending immunity for gun manufacturers.

“We need nothing less to keep our streets safe,” he said.

A poll last month from conservative-leaning Fox News showed 61% of Americans think banning assault weapons is a good idea.

And there is growing research that suggests the 1994 ban did correlate with a decline in mass killings.

Louis Klarevas, a professor at Columbia University and author of the 2016 book “Rampage Nation,” researched every gun tragedy in which six or more people were killed, going back 50 years. He found that compared to the 10-year period prior to the ban, the number of gun massacres dropped by 37% following the ban’s passage. When the ban ended in 2004, the number of mass killings increased by 183%.

But opponents of a new ban argue it wouldn’t make a difference, in part because there are so many more assault weapons in circulation now than in 1994.


“After the law lapsed, the sale of assault weapons went up dramatically,” Spitzer said. “Now, that’s part of the complication. There’s too many in society to restrict.”

The 1994 ban did grandfather in an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons, but that number had increased to an estimated 24 million or more by 2022, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Assault weapons – and the AR-15 rifle, in particular – also have become powerful political symbols for conservatives. Manufacturers have rebranded assault rifles as weapons for both sport and self-defense. Republican members of Congress pose for holiday pictures holding the weapons. Others wear lapel pins on their suit jackets not of an American flag but of a tiny AR-15.

“I think they have become a symbol because there are people trying to demonize them or trying to take them,” Volokh said.


Collins, in a statement from her office, said she supported the 1994 ban and voted to renew it in 2004. However, when a ban was reintroduced in 2013, the number of banned weapons increased from 19 to 157, which she believed was more about cosmetic features than functionality.


“Such a proposal would have imposed onerous requirements on hunters, sportsmen and women, and gun manufacturers in Maine,” her statement said.

Collins does support a ban on bump stocks, which she said effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns, and increasing the purchasing age to 21, among other things.

King has made similar comments when talking about assault weapons. His spokesman, Matthew Felling, said King is focused on finding the path to a bill that would get more than 60 votes.

“Sen. King is appalled by the countless number of gun-related tragedies we have experienced across this country,” Felling said. “He is actively discussing legislation that will reduce such senseless, avoidable deaths in the future with colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

Golden’s spokeswoman, Rachel Freed, said the congressman was not interested in doing an interview on the subject of a ban and referred a reporter to his past comments. Following his vote to reject a proposed ban last year, Golden said, “Now is not a time for bills we all know will fail.”

“Congress should not simply focus on ‘doing something’ but rather on doing something of substance that can pass into law and will advance the effort to prevent those with violent intent from obtaining or possessing weapons,” he wrote. “We do not need to take some types of firearms away from all Americans, but instead we should work to keep all firearms out of the hands of felons and those who have demonstrated that they are at serious risk of committing harm to themselves or others.”


Pingree has a decidedly different view.

“Americans see gun violence as the greatest threat to public health in the United States, surpassing opioids, obesity, alcohol abuse, smoking, and even dangerous driving,” she said in a statement. “The most outrageous thing about this uniquely American statistic is that it is avoidable. Assault weapons do not just kill, they decimate the human body. These weapons of war have no place in our communities.”

However the debate plays out, no one seems to believe that an assault weapons ban is possible in a divided Congress.

Spitzer said in years past, influential senators might try to persuade colleagues on an important topic. That appears to happen less frequently now.

“Even when you look at tragedies like Sandy Hook, there were no new gun laws, but Congress did vote on some things,” he said. “And it did spawn gun safety groups that are still active. We may be closer than we think. Or it may never happen.”

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